Myth Versus Miracle
Debate Rages Over Likely Canonization
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY -- Was Juan Diego an Aztec to whom the Virgin Mary appeared
almost 500 years ago? Or is he simply the leading character in a feel-good
Millions of Mexican Catholics and Pope John Paul II believe that Juan
Diego was real, and pilgrims come from all over this country to visit,
built near the site where
the Virgin is believed to have appeared. Hanging over the altar is Juan Diego's cloak, bearing an image of Mary said to have appeared miraculously. Thousands of
people a day ride a moving walkway that passes below the cloak, the nation's most sacred religious relic.
Devotion to the Virgin, and to Juan Diego, is so fervent here that many
pilgrims make the last part of the journey on their knees. The basilica
is the second most
visited Catholic shrine in the world, with 20 million visitors last year, behind only St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
A meeting of cardinals in the next few weeks is expected to give final
approval to Juan Diego's sainthood, clearing the way for a visit here by
the pope in July to
formally canonize him as Mexico's first indigenous saint. John Paul beatified Juan Diego, the next-to-last step toward canonization, during a 1990 trip to Mexico.
This country, which is 90 percent Catholic, has already started celebrating.
There are stories about Juan Diego in the newspapers and on television
every day. There
has been a boom in T-shirt sales and package tours to a church built on what is believed to be the site of Juan Diego's home. Attendance at the basilica, in northern
Mexico City, has increased sharply.
But there are ants at this garden party. A vocal minority of priests
and church historians, including the former head priest of the Basilica
of Guadalupe, has opened an emotional national debate here by publicly
stating what some scholars have long believed: that there is no convincing
historical record that Juan Diego ever existed.
They say he was probably fabricated by Spanish conquerors as a means of converting the country's native tribes to Catholicism.
"It's a story, like Cinderella was a story," said the Rev. Manuel Olimon
Nolasco, one of seven men who signed four letters sent to the Vatican recently,
Paul to reconsider the decision to grant sainthood.
Olimon and the others argue that adding Juan Diego's name to the church's
hallowed roster of saints might make millions of Catholics feel good, but
candidacy does not meet the church's rigorous standard of documentation for those it canonizes.
Olimon, a church history specialist who teaches at the Pontifical University of Mexico, which trains priests, said he went to Rome in October to make his case to top church officials. But he believes the Vatican has already made up its mind to canonize Juan Diego.
In the letters, the critics write that they could have enlisted the
support of many other church and lay scholars who agree with them. However,
they write, "we don't
want to provoke a useless scandal; we only want to avoid the diminishment of the credibility of our church."
It's a scandal anyway: Outraged Mexican church officials released a
letter of their own, writing that "for every signature that [critics] could
have gotten, the church of
Mexico already has millions" who believe.
Leading the anti-sainthood campaign is the Rev. Guillermo Schulenburg,
former abbot of the basilica. He has said that canonization of Juan Diego
"recognition of a cult." He declined to be interviewed for this article through a spokesman who described him as "too nervous."
Since news of his letters to the Vatican became public, Schulenburg has become a household word. He is the subject of white-hot criticism in the media, on radio talk shows and in daily, fiery speeches delivered on the grounds of the basilica he once oversaw.
In Milenio magazine last week, one angry writer joked that he had been
walking along the road recently when Juan Diego appeared to him and said,
doesn't exist." The magazine also listed Schulenburg as an "Out" in its weekly list of "Ins and Outs."
"The critics are all liars," said Victor Carrillo, 60, a construction
worker who sat under a tent at the basilica, where a pro-Juan Diego preacher
Olimon and Schulenburg by name. "This is a faith that has been passed down through the generations."
To Monsignor Jose Luis Guerrero, the leading Juan Diego specialist at the Basilica of Guadalupe, the opponents of canonization are merely anti-Indian "racists."
"They can't understand how an Indian, who was nothing, could ever have been chosen by God," Guerrero said. Mexico has 10 million indigenous people.
Guerrero acknowledges that Juan Diego's supporters have "not as many
proofs as we would like" of his existence. But he said that Juan Diego's
demonstrated in the massive conversion of the country's Indians to Catholicism in the 1500s. He said Indian cultural beliefs made conversion to an unknown religion
virtually impossible. For so many to convert so quickly suggests that something powerful happened. He and others believe that was the Virgin Mary's appearance to
Guerrero also said that a document called the Nican Mopohua, written
in the Aztec and Toltec language Nahuatl, clearly establishes the chronology
appearances to Juan Diego. He said the document was written shortly after Juan Diego's death in 1548. He said critics have dismissed it as unreliable because it is
written in Nahuatl; Olimon and others said the document is a work of art, not a historical record.
"It's a jewel of Indian literature," Guerrero said. "So in a way, [the
critics] are right. The history is so beautiful, it's like a story. It's
like Cinderella, where there is a
good, humble person, something extraordinary happens to them, and there is a happy ending. It's too good to be true -- except in this case, it is true. We have proof that it is true."
And, he said, they have a miracle.
In 1990, a young man named Juan Jose Barragan tried to commit suicide by jumping head-first off a three-story building in Mexico City. Homero Hernandez Illescas, the doctor who oversaw his treatment, said his injuries were massive and irreversible. Hernandez, in an interview, said Barragan had smashed his skull and spinal column and that there was no possibility for survival.
Hernandez, a longtime member of a religious society devoted to the Virgin
of Guadalupe, said he told the young man's mother to pray to Juan Diego
for help, which
she did. Three days later, he said, the young man stood up and walked out of intensive care, his injuries inexplicably healed.
"I don't know why him and not another," Hernandez said. "Only God knows."
The medical records of the case were sent to the Vatican, which investigated
and concluded that Juan Diego had performed a miracle. John Paul formally
certified the miracle in December, preparing the way for Juan Diego to
be canonized. (Earlier, the pope waived the usual requirement that a second
miracle be certified for
Olimon said the miracle case is dubious because Hernandez was not impartial
-- the doctor wanted to believe that his patient was miraculously cured,
because of his strong devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Olimon said he fears that the miracle is part of a pattern that suggests
church officials are "in a hurry" to canonize Juan Diego. He said Mexico's
90 million Catholics,
and millions more Mexicans in the United States, are a powerful political force that the church wants to please.
"We are not asking that people stop their devotion," he said. "But we think the process should be made with history in mind. The truth is very important."
In Mexico, few are listening to those arguments. Many find the debate
irrelevant: To them, Juan Diego exists not because historians say he does,
generations of their families have been devoted to him. That is unlikely to change.
At the basilica one day recently, Estela Martinez Carrasco, 43, crawled toward Juan Diego's cloak, tears streaming down her cheeks. She said she had come to ask the Virgin Mary and Juan Diego to care for her husband, who has a weak heart and was about to undergo surgery.
She said she believes in Juan Diego because her mother, 73, told her
she has seen Juan Diego many times, walking down the street and waving
to her. She said she
has no idea why anyone would doubt what her mother and her grandparents and their grandparents have always believed.
"Of course he is real," she said.